Aljazeera English "Inside Story" has a special report on the situation in Libya posted to YouTube 08/24/2011, with a reporter that asks real questions, which has sadly become a novelty for American news TV viewers:
We have some liberal-interventionist triumphalism going over the Libya War. Which is likely to have more destructive consequences than constructive ones. Michael Tomasky makes the case that foreign policy is Obama’s True Claim to FameDaily Beast 08/23/2011. First listing several qualifications that mitigate against triumphalism at the moment, he goes on to indulge in it anyway, breezily dismissing the substantial criticisms of the intervention:
All that said, the administration has already handled a lot of these changes well (and in the face of absolutely constant know-it-all criticism). One of the best things an American administration can do when big changes are afoot somewhere in the world is stay out of the way and not act as if we can will an outcome just because we're America. We have a group in this country that likes to will outcomes, and their track record demonstrates that that doesn’t work so well (unless you think, apropos Iraq, that eight years and more than 100,000 lives later defines “well”). Obama has been more in the mold of George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, Jim Baker, when the Eastern bloc was throwing off Moscow’s shackles. Offer encouragement and stability, give a few speeches about freedom, but otherwise let them do their own work.
Obama took a lot of stick [sic] for not being more forceful on Egypt in February, but he was right to be cautious—there were lots of stakeholders involved, and sorry, but the president of the United States just can't say every sweet thing romantics would like him to say. He then, as noted, took heat for moving too slowly on Libya, but here again he was correct. The nature of the Libyan regime is not a direct national-security issue, so there absolutely had to be a specific trigger to justify acting. That trigger was Gaddafi's threatened assault on Benghazi.
That was completely the right thing to do. It was as textbook a fulfillment of "R2P," or "responsibility to protect," as one could imagine. The subsequent bombing campaign took longer than advertised, but it has apparently done the job, quickly and with far smaller loss of life (including zero U.S. deaths) than if we'd followed John McCain and Lindsey Graham's advice and gone in with ground troops. [my emphasis]
In my mind, saying, "The nature of the Libyan regime is not a direct national-security issue," immediately raises a serious question of legitimacy. That's where Tomasky makes the humanitarian-hawk argument on the "responsibility to protect," an important but highly problematic concept in international law, made such in no small part by American support.
The legality problem and the use of the Libya War as a model
But "responsibility to protect" is not the same as a blanket license for externally-imposed regime change. And that's what we have in Libya. I haven't yet seen any claims that the Libyan rebel army on its own could have made the military gains they have so quickly absent the NATO support in active military operations. What the UN Security Council resolution authorizing foreign intervention in support of the responsibility to protect allowed was a no-fly zone. It didn't give international legal sanction to a regime change operation, which is what the US and NATO ran. See the invaluable Nancy Youssef, What turned the tide in rebels' march to Tripoli?McClatchy Newspapers 08/22/2011 for a summary of NATO's role in active combat operations to date.
Then there's the Constitutional issue, which has in practice become mute thanks to Executive overreach and Congressional laziness and irresponsibility. As Daniel Luban writes in Too Early to Claim Vindication in Libya LobeLog Foreign Policy 08/23/2011 about that issue, adding a warning that triumphalist interpretations of the Libya War can invite more recklessness with military interventions:
The fact that the war helped put Obama's seal of approval on the American practice of going to war surreptitiously, without congressional approval or public accountability — as well as the possibility that perceived success in Libya might make the U.S. more reckless in intervening in the future — are both potential pitfalls that have little to do with the outcome of action on the ground. And that’s before we even speculate about whether the rebels' victory will prove to be conclusive, or what Libya's next government will look like.
And as long as we're recalling Old Man Bush, let's remember that Bush's great military/foreign policy success in the Gulf War of 1991 not only failed to get him re-elected with an economy in bad shape - but not nearly as bad as it's likely to be in 2012. It also set the stage for years of direct intervention in Iraq in the form of a no-fly zone, which included the bizarrely-named Operation Desert Fox of 1998-99. That continuing military intervention in Iraq culminated in Bush the Younger's invasion in 2003, the destructive consequences of which are still very much with us.
I don't mean this as some kind of invocation of the conservative magic formula of "unintended consequences." It's a reminder on where reckless foreign policy decisions can lead. Über-Realist Stephen Walt even dates the Gulf War as the beginning of the decline of the American Empire. While I wouldn't venture to identify such a portentous turning point so specifically. But, as usual, Walt's observations are worthwhile: When did the American empire start to decline?Foreign Policy 08/02/2011. As he remarks, "no strategy is so bad that somebody else can't make it worse."
Helena Cobban also expresses concern about using the Libya War as a model for further military interventions in Libya: The longer viewJust World News 08/24/2011. She also raises a caution about triumphalism:
Libya, after 40 years of Qadhafi's rule and the recent five months of armed conflict, has very few institutions of good governance and almost no culture or tradition of good governance left to it. We have also seen very disturbing social fissures opening up during these most recent months of war-- between easterners and westerners, and between Arabs and Imazaghen. I am trying hard to muster some hope that the country's "transition" to a decent level and quality of self-governance can be well achieved within the next 2-3 years, but it is really hard to see any indications of how this might be achieved. ...
What is clear now, though, is that this task will be huge, and it has barely even begun... [my emphasis]
Before the war, Libya provided about 1.1 million to 1.6 million barrels per day, roughly about 2 percent of the world’s daily oil demand. But while that production made Libya only the world's 17th largest oil producer, it has the largest proven reserves in Africa and it played an outsized role in supplying Western Europe, where refineries easily process its lighter grade of crude.
Saudi Arabia stepped into produce more oil, but Saudi oil is more difficult for European refineries to process.
Oil politics undoubtedly played a part in the Saudi monarchy's support of this Western humanitarian intervention.
Dreyfuss puts the role of oil pointedly: "What do you call it when the full force of a US/NATO aerial bombardment is coupled with political support for a ragtag rebel group that, when victorious, promises to hand over its oil resources to its Western backers? A war for oil."
Pragmatism has various incarnations
There's usually no shortage of hypocrisy to be found in the vicinity of foreign policy questions. Thanks to Wikileaks, we have a couple of examples from the bold Maverick McCain and his good buddgy Joe Lieberman on Libya. As Ali Gharib reports in Leaked Cable: McCain Promised Qaddafi To Help Secure Military Equipment From U.S.Think Progress Security 08/24/2011, we had this from that great friend of democracy and liberation from tyranny Joe Lieberman: "Lieberman called Libya an important ally in the war on terrorism, noting that common enemies sometimes make better friends."
That's from a diplomatic cable reporting on a trip to Libya that Lieberman made with the Maverick and their fellow triplet Senator, Lindsey Graham. It also reported:
Senator McCain assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its [a Libyan security program]. He stated that he understood Libya's requests regarding the rehabilitation of its eight C130s [a transport plane] and pledged to see what he could do to move things forward in Congress. He encouraged Muatassim to keep in mind the long-term perspective of bilateral security engagement and to remember that small obstacles will emerge from time to time that can be overcome.
The Maverick and his li'l buddy Lindsey also pledged to help our their partner in the War on Terror: "Senators McCain and Graham conveyed the U.S. interest in continuing the progress of the bilateral relationship and pledged to try to resolve the C130 issue with Congress and Defense Secretary Gates."
Now, this provides a bit of schadenfreude because the triplets griped about Obama's not doing enough fast enough to help overturn Gaddafi's government in Libya this year. Because it shows how cynical these characters can be.
But there's also something to be said from a pragmatic attitude toward relations with governments that are cooperating with the US in important national objectives. The triplets would have added something more constructive to what little debate there has been about the Libyan intervention if they had talked publicly about why the US government had seen Qaddafi's regime in a more favorable light the last few years.
My biggest concern in the probable repercussions of the US intervention is that Libya had agreed back in 2003 to abandon its nuclear weapons program, which should always be at the front or very near the front of US foreign policy priorities. Giving up its attempt to develop nuclear weapons that would have deterred a foreign attack, Qaddafi this year found himself at war with the United States and NATO, and not in response to any attack by Libya on NATO countries. Is this likely to make Iran or any other country more likely to cooperate in nuclear nonproliferation efforts? I don't see how.